More than 150 police officers in east, west and central Baltimore were equipped with body cameras Monday — instructed to begin recording their interactions with the public as a first step toward department-wide use of the technology next year.
The move reflects a national trend of law enforcement agencies adopting body cameras amid heightened scrutiny, particularly in urban and majority African-American communities like Baltimore. Police departments are taking action as civilians increasingly post their own recordings of police interactions online.
Top commanders described Baltimore's two-month pilot program in broad terms during a news conference at police headquarters Monday. The program will test cameras from three vendors before one is chosen for use citywide. Officers will be responsible for activating the cameras before interacting with civilians and for uploading the footage to cloud-based storage provided by the vendors. People being recorded can request that officers turn off their cameras, officials said.
But the department declined to release the "draft policy" it developed to govern how and when officers use their cameras, how officers can respond to citizen requests not to be filmed, how the department plans to use the footage, and who will have access to the recordings. Those issues have been debated nationally and raise thorny legal questions, including around citizens' privacy concerns.
"We are working from a draft right now because we want to fine-tune that policy to make sure that, as we experience this pilot program, we're going to learn and the community is going to learn," said Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere. "We will be transparent moving forward and we will answer the community's questions in regards to what the policy suggests that we do at this point."
David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, a member of the mayor's body camera task force and the state's body camera commission, called the Police Department's decision not to publish its policy "incomprehensible and utterly unacceptable."
The state commission specifically called for policies to be public in its recommendations to state legislators, and members of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's task force "assumed and we specifically discussed that the policies would be public," Rocah said.
"Body cameras are about transparency and accountability. That's why there is a national demand and local demand for body cameras," he said. "You can't claim to be transparent and then say those orders are a secret. It's beyond ridiculous."
Residents who fear that officers' body cameras will "only be on when officers want them to be on and they won't be on when officers are engaged in misconduct" should be able to look to the department's policy for assurances that officers are being held accountable, Rocah said.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he sees the pilot program as a "great first step" and hopes it provides the city with a credible vendor that can "give us the tools that will allow us to be successful."
But, he said, the Police Department and Rawlings-Blake's administration should have had a public information campaign that said, "Here's the rules, here's how everything is going to be structured, and in case you have questions, here's a number to call." And he said the policy should have been posted online before the pilot program went live.
Palmere said the department consulted programs in other cities to develop its policy and that he is "confident" it is legally sound. He said the policy honors requirements for the release of camera recordings under Maryland's Public Information Act. And he said it reflects ideas from the state panel set up by Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly, called the Commission Regarding the Implementation and Use of Body Cameras by Law Enforcement Officers.
Legislators in Annapolis are expected to take up legislation to govern such programs statewide in January, in part based on the commission's recommendations.
Baltimore commanders expect a contract for the citywide program to be awarded to one of the three vendors in February. It is expected to take about two years for the city's approximately 3,000 officers to be equipped. Prosecutors will have access to body camera footage from the pilot program and to later recordings, Palmere said.
Rochelle Ritchie, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, said in a statement that the state's attorney's office "has been working closely with the Baltimore Police Department to develop appropriate policies and procedures to maintain and obtain footage that will help us prosecute cases and hold criminals accountable."
Baltimore's program is not the first in Maryland, but it would be the state's largest. Laurel was among the first, adopting cameras in 2013. Baltimore County announced last month that 150 officers there will be equipped with body cameras starting in July, with more than 1,400 officers equipped in 2017.
The three city vendors include Taser International Inc., the manufacturer of stun guns; Atlantic Tactical Inc.; and Brekford Corp., the Anne Arundel firm that briefly ran the city's troubled speed camera program. The cost of the body camera program remains unclear, as bids were submitted under seal.
The 155 officers who were provided cameras Monday are assigned to the Eastern, Western and Central districts, to special enforcement units in the Eastern and Western districts, and to the department's special operations section. Some officers volunteered to wear them while others were recommended by supervisors.
Col. Melissa Hyatt, head of patrol, said the participating officers' "candid feedback" during the pilot will play a key role in selecting the vendor and shaping policy.
Officer Hanna Parrish, who volunteered to be a part of the program, said she received a "pretty positive" response from members of the public during three Monday morning calls in the Western District. She likes the idea of her camera capturing her interactions with the public from start to finish, including "all the boring stuff" before an incident escalates, showing why it did, she said.
"There's two sides to every story, and it's not often that the police officer's side really comes out. And it will be good for the community, too," she said. "It will be good for whoever we are speaking to at the time. It will ensure fairness on each side. And if there is ... stuff that's going wrong that needs to be fixed, that needs to be addressed, I think it will hold everyone a little more accountable."
In West Baltimore on Monday afternoon, several residents interviewed praised police body cameras as a positive development.
Sharon Johnson, 51, said when it comes to police transparency, "every little bit helps."
After an incident between an officer and a community member, she said, "we give our version, they give their version, and the truth is probably somewhere in between."
Larry Boyd, 23, said he hopes the body cameras will change officers' interactions with people on the street.
"They can't get away with beating up on regular people or falsely arresting you," he said. "It'll be better now."
Kenneth Betts, 50, said body cameras are "a good idea" that could have prevented Freddie Gray's fatal injuries in police custody in April.
The death of Gray, 25, led to protests that escalated into rioting and prompted officials to declare a citywide curfew and deploy the National Guard. Bystanders' cellphone videos captured part of Gray's arrest, showing officers placing him into the back of a police van.
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With officers wearing body cameras, Betts said, "we'll get a chance to see everything that's going on."
Rawlings-Blake said in a statement Monday that she believes body cameras "will help to bring a greater level of accountability and trust to our efforts to improve police-community relations," and the pilot program "will ensure that we find the right solution for Baltimore."
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents rank-and-file city officers, said Monday that he is proud of the work he and other members of the mayor's task force did to find the best way to introduce the technology into Baltimore's Police Department.
"To deny the probable advent of body-worn cameras into the law enforcement profession would be unrealistic," Ryan said. "In fact, it is clear that in many cases, the cameras will be an asset to our profession. The methodology of the mayor's plan, including this lengthy pilot program, is without question the proper path, as there will most certainly be the inevitable learning curve for all involved."
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.